Legend, Myth, and Street Cred in the Image of the Artist

2 06 2012

In the world of slam poetry, having a difficult life about which to write can be a distinct advantage.  Let me be clear.  I am not saying that coming from poverty, racial discrimination, domestic violence or homophobia are advantages in life.  I am saying that plumbing the depths of those experiences in writing and performing slam poetry can bring high scores from judges, adoration from audiences, and respect from other poets in ways that writing about a middle-class white suburban upbringing to do not.

Much of this is due to the personal nature of slam.  Poems are often windows into the lives of the poets themselves.  They aren’t writing about an abstract idea of racial prejudice—they are writing about their own experience with it.  As an audience, we feel like we know the person through his or her poetry.

6 is 9 (Khary Jackson) performing “Her Name”

This is not something that is limited to slam.  We look for clues into the life and psyche of an artist through his paintings, of a novelist through her words, or of a rapper through his songs.  The more hardship that we find, it seems, the more connection we feel to the artist through the work.  In slam, this is immediately apparent through scores, but it happens in all forms of cultural production.

Every person on this planet experiences hardship of some sort—even rich people, even white people.  When an artwork addresses hardship in a way that magnifies suffering, it ennobles suffering.  The audience can then apply that nobility to their own suffering while at the same time connecting with the suffering expressed by the artist (even if they have nothing to do with each other).  Empathy and catharsis are achieved in this communication.

An example of how this works with a fictional character can be found in the TV show House.  Gregory House, the genius diagnostician, suffers from chronic pain due to an infarction in his leg suffered years ago.  The pain is so great, it affects how he relates to his employees, his patients, his love interests, and even his best friend, Wilson.  He develops an addiction to Vicodin as a result of coping with this pain.  Everyone in the audience has experienced pain.  Chances are it is neither the level nor duration experienced by House, but pain is pain—physical, emotional, or psychological.  Everyone in the audience has had to cope with pain.  Maybe it hasn’t been through Vicodin—maybe it’s alcohol, maybe it’s exercise, maybe it’s watching television or writing blogs about art and contemporary culture.  However small the scale of pain may be for a particular audience member, the magnitude of House’s pain gives credence to how big the pain FEELS to the member of the audience.  He relates to House because House is like him, even though House is nothing like him.

Yet, House is a fictional character.  Our expectations of the lives of artists is more stringent.  We expect artists to relate to us out of real pain, not fictional pain.  We look for signs of insanity in the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh or the poems of Sylvia Plath, because we know the paths their lives really took.  We also expect poets, musicians and rappers to have actually lived the lives they write, sing, or rap about.  As a result, artists of all stripes are either respected for fitting the expected mold of lifelong hardship or strive to make their lives fit that mold.

In art, the most obvious case of fitting the mold is Jean-Michel Basquiat.  He was the ultimate un-trained street artist-cum-multi-millionaire gallery superstar who got his start sleeping on park benches and tagging graffiti all over New York.  He also came from an upper middle-class family, studied at the Edward R. Murrow School, and could speak fluent Spanish and French (as well as English) by age 11.  His identity as an outsider or underdog was constructed and marketed—partially by him, partially by Annina Nosei and Mary Boone.  His work is generally accepted (though not necessarily hailed) by critics and he is adored by art students because of his (manufactured) outsider status—something that is a prerequisite of the hero artist.

Insider artists, even if they sell, are generally reviled as charlatans, as disingenuous.  It seems as if Jeff Koons has “former bond trader” permanently attached to his name in print, as if to consistently remind us that he is not from the bottom of society—his is not a life of hardship and struggle.  This is precisely what happened to Vanilla Ice.

Unauthorized sampling of Queen’s “Under Pressure” aside, “Ice Ice Baby” is a much harder song than it gets credit for.  Record companies did not know how to market rap just yet, so Vanilla Ice’s look and video from 1990 are seen as laughably innocent compared to the gangsta rap that was about to come straight outta Compton.  But the lyrics are not that far away from those of NWA:

Yo, so I continued to A-1-A Beachfront Avenue
Girls were hot wearing less than bikinis
Rock man lovers driving Lamborghini
Jealous ’cause I’m out getting mine
Shay with a gauge and Vanilla with a nine
Ready for the chumps on the wall
The chumps are acting ill because they’re so full of eight balls
Gunshots ranged out like a bell
I grabbed my nine
All I heard were shells
Fallin’ on the concrete real fast
Jumped in my car, slammed on the gas
Bumper to bumper the avenue’s packed
I’m tryin’ to get away before the jackers jack
Police on the scene
You know what I mean
They passed me up, confronted all the dope fiends
If there was a problem
Yo, I’ll solve it
Check out the hook while my DJ revolves it

No swearing, no sex (really), but plenty of gang, violence, and drug references.  But Vanilla Ice was never taken seriously, and certainly not as seriously as Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Tupac Shakur or Notorious B.I.G.  Aside from the Parliament/Funkadelic sample and the “Parental Advisory”-inducing swearing, Snoop’s debut single, “What’s My Name,” is remarkably similar in content to “Ice Ice Baby”—a lot of boasting and name repetition.

Vanilla Ice’s record company tried to increase his street credibility by publishing a false biography in his name which, among other things, connected him to 2 Live Crew’s Luther Campbell.  His own life story didn’t need embellishing—he had just as difficult a childhood as any other rapper who grew up in a broken home, never knowing his real father.  Nonetheless, with no credibility due to the fake biography added to the glitzy packaging and the fact that he is white, Vanilla Ice (whose given name is Robert Matthew Van Winkle) became a joke as quickly as he had become a star.

Audiences expect rappers to live the thug life about which they rap—50 Cent earned fame as much for having been shot as for his skills as a performer.  Audiences also expect slam poets to have lived the experiences they are communicating in their performances.  Combined with the expectation of empathy through stories of hardship, this means that poets of color, queer poets, and, at times, women poets can make stronger connections than straight, white, male poets.  The connection is reflected in scores and audience response.

Curiously, in an effort to make this all-important personal connection, many slam poets in recent years (minority poets included) have turned to the persona poem.  A persona poem is when a poet writes about a person who is not themselves from a first-person point of view.  The team from St. Paul, Minnesota won the National Poetry Slam two years in a row, largely with the help of persona poems by 6 is 9 (Khary Jackson) and Sierra DeMulder.  The persona poem has opened an avenue for poets to connect to audiences with stories of hardship that may be outside of their own lived experience.  But even this can backfire.

Alvin Lau

In 2007 in Austin, Alvin Lau took second in the Individual finals at the National Poetry Slam.  One of his higher-scoring and more well-received poems dealt with a lesbian sister.  As it turns out, Alvin Lau does not have a lesbian sister.  It’s impossible for me to know how audiences have reacted to that revelation, but poets have been largely unforgiving of Lau for using hardship outside of his own experience in order to increase his standings in this competitive art from.  It was two years later that St. Paul won its first of two consecutive NPS titles with persona poems.

Earlier this week, poet Rachel McKibbens posted a link on her Facebook page to a blog with the headline “Do We Need Affirmative Action for White Male Poets?”  McKibbens has long been outspoken about the gender disparity in slam audiences and in slam champions (which is predominantly male), and she posted the link out of indignation.  To me, the blog comes across as a father who thought his son did better than the judges scored (surely an expected response from a proud parent), and had very little experience with the form of slam poetry itself

I was struck by the outrage of the comments about the post.  Many reacted just to the headline, addressing nothing within the article.  Chicago poet Billy Tuggle went on record refusing to read it, saying “Fuck this dude.”  Sierra DeMulder was quoted, derisively saying, “What a tragedy, young, white, poet man.”  DeMulder’s best-known poem, “Mrs. Dahmer,” is a persona piece from the perspective of the mother of a mass murderer

Sierra DeMulder

As a white male, it can be difficult to connect with audiences expecting empathy and catharsis.  My race and class provide me with opportunities that make my life easier than lives of others.  We do not live in a classless or post-racial world, no matter how much anyone tries to sugar-coat it.  Despite differences, pain is a condition of human existence.  No matter our race, no matter our background, we can relate to each other as people through this universal conduit.  It may be that to better connect with an audience as a poet, you have to become a better writer and performer.  To better connect with a viewer as a painter, you have to become a better artist.  To become better artists, we have to become better communicators.





Inside/Outside

18 03 2012

Howard Singerman opens the sixth chapter of Art Subjects:  Making Artists in the American University by pointing out not only the primacy of language in university art education, but also the place of the artist in the work and in the instruction of art itself.  In an age of conceptual art, with language being a large factor in both the construction and understanding of a work, the artist’s statement and the artist’s talk are not just addendums to the work—they are the work.

Rirkrit Tiravanija speaking at the Serpentine Gallery, London, 2010.

Universities and museums become a sort of circuit for conceptual and alternative media artists, like night clubs for a band or book-signings for an author. Since large municipal museums are unlikely to show the work of lesser-known artists, and galleries have a hard time promoting their work due to a lack of physical commodities to sell in many cases, the most ephemeral, most conceptual kinds of artwork are promoted through the institution of the university.  In these cases, artists come with the work—it’s not just a bunch of paintings in a crate.  They help with the installation (in some cases the work is actually produced at the university), visit studios of upper classmen and graduate students, and typically give a presentation on their work.

This kind of interaction with the artists has a powerful effect on students.  When they are so intimately involved with the artist and with the creation of the work (when that occurs), the possibilities of conceptual and non-object-based work can seem very exciting.  They are, indeed.  It is those possibilities upon which this blog is based.

The problem with this model for art legitimation is that it ends up being a circular system.  Conceptual artists have too small of a market on which to sell their works, thus getting them into the primary market of collectors, the secondary  market of the auction houses, and finally the legitimization that comes with the acquisition of their work by a noted museum and the textbook recognition that comes with that. They, in effect, cut around the market part of that system and are injected directly into the legitimization of the curriculum by becoming an active part of it.

Chris Burden, Shoot, 1971

The market for conceptual work is not the art (commodity) market.  It is the university.  So students inspired to work this way then go into the market that exists for it:  the university from whence they came.  They want to become an artist like Chris Burden (see page 161 of Art Subjects for an amusing example of one of Burden’s artist’s visits), getting stipends for artist’s talks.  They want to become university art instructors—to be able to make a living involved with art while producing the kinds of work they themselves are legitimating.  Quoting Raymond Parker, Singerman states, “The taught art world determines the status of the teachers in the eyes of the students:  ‘The teacher distinguishes himself from the student by the authority with which he acts as a part of the art world (p. 158).’”  While Burden was teaching at UCLA, a student (not in one of his classes), payed homage to this iconic performance by seeming to run out of the classroom and commit suicide as a performance. Burden resigned as a result, not wanting to inspire further and perhaps more reckless actions by students. The incident highlights the kind of influence instructors have over students in what they produce and in what they promote.

The problems with this system are twofold, but they both center on the insularity of the system.  First, the legitimation of artists taking place within the university alienates those outside of the university, more specifically—those outside the university art department.  While the intimate interaction with the artists is indeed powerful for the students, faculty, and the relatively small number of community attendees involved, it is not a part of the experience of those who just come into the gallery to see the exhibition.  A video projected on the wall of crowds of people bustling about their day might have been an intense and rewarding work of collaboration for a visiting artist and a group of students, but it has no power for the pre-med major wandering through between classes who wasn’t present for the artist’s talk the day before.  To her, it may just be another weird video installation in the art department—they’re always doing strange things over there.  As I’ve stated elsewhere in this blog, when art is treated as a curiosity rather than as essential, its place power in the larger society is greatly diminished.

Secondly, this system produces graduates who are trained to make artwork for this insular system.  Students get BFAs in order to get MFAs.  They get MFAs in order to teach.  They teach students working toward BFAs, and the circle continues.  This system may not be a problem, if not for the small size of the pool of instructors.  At the university where I taught for five years, there were over 900 declared art majors Fall Semester of 2012.  There were 24 full-time art faculty.

The odds of becoming a big, rich, rock star are recognized as small—there can only be one Metallica out of the millions of metal bands playing shows in dive bars in small towns.  The odds of becoming an art star are similarly small (maybe even smaller) and even art students, as optimistic as they may be, understand that.  Of the tens of thousands of MFA graduates in the United States every year, there are under 1000 graduate programs, and each may be hiring one to three full-time faculty in a given year, if any.  The turnover rate for tenure-track professors is not high.

As an undergraduate, I was inspired to work in conceptual and performance art by the work of my Alternative Media professor at Eastern Washington University, Tom Askman.  Visiting artist Rirkrit Tiravanija got me excited about exploring the experiential and the idea that anything—even cooking for strangers—could be art.  A studio visit from Juane Quick-To-See Smith encouraged me me to go to graduate school.  An extended graduate studio visit from Joanna Frueh and the knowledge that the artists I most admired—Allan Kaprow, Guillermo Gomez-Peña, and Enrique Chagoya—had experience teaching while producing art stoked my optimism when I graduated.  It seemed very possible that I would one day be able to have a stable income while making art and even potentially making a difference in art.

For all the talk of conceptual, interactive, alternative media-based art and its potential to reach outside of the institutions of art and engage the larger population, both the inspiration and the occupational stability for those artists comes from within the institution.  Here, the university has replaced the gallery and the museum.  An art artist creates work within the educational setting, which inspires students to work in similar ways in order and end up legitimized by that educational setting.  For all my rhetoric about operating outside of academia (yes, I talked about it even as a student), my plan was to seek employment within.

I was not doused with confetti when I graduated from BSU. Now I feel cheated.

For five years, I taught as an adjunct instructor at the university where I earned my MFA.  In those five years, I applied for so many tenure-track positions, I lost count.  In those five years, I was never so much as interviewed for a position.  I do not know the reasons for my unemployability in the academic field, and to guess at what they may be would be misguided.  The point is that I have finally moved to a different field.  Last week, I got a “real” job.  Outside of the university, outside of the art world—this job is far from thinking about how everything and everyday can be an art experience.

My training and expertise in Derridean Deconstruction and Semiotics mean little in my current position, and by “little” I mean “nothing.”  After twelve years as either an art student or an instructor, it’s strange to go to work every day in that “real world” I always talked so passionately about.  My challenge is to continue to incorporate the ideas of Kaprow, Singerman, James Elkins, Yoko Ono, Joseph Beuys, Marcel Duchamp, Arthur C. Danto, Lucy Lippard, Suzanne Lacey, Rachel McKibbens, Cheryl Maddalena, Nick Newman, and the other artists, writers, theorists and poets who influenced me into my own experience of everyday life.

The cliché goes, “If you do what you love, you never work a day in your life.”  For five years, that was my life.  Now, I have to work.  Make no mistake:  this is not a self-pitying blog post.  I am not resigning from performing poetry, writing blogs, organizing events, or critiquing every form of cultural production that crosses into my field of vision.  I will continue to make art.  I now have the challenge of making art truly outside of academia—in the “real” world.

Works Cited:

Singerman, Howard.  Art Subjects:  Making Artists in the American University.  Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1999.








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